Today, it’s splashed across the headlines. Yesterday, Karen King, Professor at Harvard Divinity School, announced at an international conference in Rome the discovery of a papyrus fragment in which Jesus seems to refer to his wife. Dan Brown must be thrilled.
But let’s take a step back and consider what we’ve got here.
- The text itself and its origin. The text came to King from a private source who remains anonymous; there are considerable gaps in the text itself, making a reconstruction of what actually lies on the page quite difficult. There is considerable work that needs to be done to ascertain the fragment’s age, authenticity, and what the text actually says.
- it’s written in Coptic, probably dating from the late fourth century (perhaps even later). King posits (based on what she considers “parallels” with the Gospel of Thomas and other texts) that it is a translation of a second-century Greek text. That’s quite a leap.
- Is it a gospel? King assigns it to this genre without strong supporting evidence. Jesus does seem to be speaking and the text refers to Mary but is that enough to tell us the larger textual context of the fragment we have?
- King did follow correct scholarly norms in announcing the find. She took it to scholars of Coptic and ancient papyri; she wrote an article that she submitted to scholarly review; she announced the find, not in a sensationalistic press conference or National Geographic TV special (as the Gospel of Judas was announced) but at a prestigious international conference; and she has provided scholars with everything they need to make their own judgments.
- Most importantly, as King stresses repeatedly, this text in no way proves Jesus was married. It provides no evidence concerning the historical Jesus.
So what does it mean?
If it’s proved authentic–a text dating from the late fourth century (I’m not speculating on whether it actually dates to the 2nd century)–what does it tell us about early Christian belief and practice?
Well, not a lot. That there were groups calling themselves Christian that had interesting and unconventional beliefs about Jesus is not news. By this time, there was a strong tendency toward ascetism in early Christianity that emphasized celibacy and chastity and looked at marriage with a critical eye. In earlier centuries, say the second and early third, there is evidence, cited by King in her draft article, that the debate whether Jesus had a wife was open, and that the belief he had a wife was used as justification for Christians practicing marriage.
Whatever the debates in early Christianity over marriage and celibacy, they provide little guidance for contemporary Christians who seek to follow Jesus. In our very different historical and cultural context, with radically different understandings of sexuality and human personhood, we have to look for moral guidance elsewhere than ambiguous texts from unknown sources.